Justice is a core value of our Christian spiritual tradition. From the beginning, God has called people to love God and neighbor. As we experience the love of God, we learn what real love looks like. Love sets people free and labors for another’s well-being. Love cares for suffering. Love rejoices in the truth. It is impossible to say we love people if we are not treating them justly and with dignity. The call to love God and neighbor is a call to do justice. Through this series, the prophet Jeremiah will be our primary guide as we explore what love and justice require of us for the living of these days.
Living Water, Holy Fire
A sermon offered by Will Ed Green at Foundry United Methodist Church—Sept. 1st, 2019
“Do Justice!” seems like an easy command when injustice is the status quo. Pastoral insights and prophetic pronouncements are not needed to understand the profound violence done at our borders and on our streets. In a city where the victims of every unsolved homicide this year are persons of color. In a nation where the debate about the worth of an enslaved person’s humanity has simply become about the valuation of refugees based upon their nation of origin. In a denomination which holds so primary the power of grace that has the gall to debate access to that grace because of a person’s sexuality or gender identity. We’re not hurting for opportunities to “do justice” these days.
But our new sermon series isn’t necessarily about the injustices of this present age, but how we—rooted in the promises of God and modeling ourselves in the way of Jesus Christ—are pursuing that justice. It’s about helping us ensure that—as disciples of Jesus who are compelled by our baptismal vows to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in ALL forms they present themselves,”—we are doing so in a way that sustains not a moment in our collective history but participates in the movement of God through which all people experience liberation and abundant life.
Now may the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be pleasing to you for you, and you alone, are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
To best understand the Book of Jeremiah, we need to take a step back in time to a moment when the people called Israel were in bondage in Egypt. When they escaped the oppression of Pharaoh and began their 40-year sojourn in the desert, they were a rag-tag bunch of enslaved persons whose only unifying characteristic was that they WEREN’T Egyptian. But through covenantal promises made with God on Mount Sinai, they became a PEOPLE with a common purpose: to live as a testimony to the unifying power of God’s grace and serve as a witness in the world to God’s liberating love. And their job was to pour out the waters of justice and love for all people.
In the intervening years, however, the tribes of Israel had only once—and for a brief 79 years—achieved any real semblance or recognition as a divinely chosen people. Following the reigns of King David and Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms which were themselves at war with one another. The northern Kingdom of Israel fell—and was as an independent nation obliterated—in 721 by the Assyrian Empire while Judah, the southern Kingdom, became an Assyrian vassal-state.
This is important background information, to understand Jeremiah and our readings during this series. Because Jeremiah’s ministry begins at time when—for the first time in recent memory—things seemed to be looking up for Judah.
Now, there were wars and rumors of war. But that was because the Assyrian empire was collapsing under pressure from the new imperial power on the block, Babylon. And this meant that for the first time in forever the people were free from Assyrian oversight and control. Under the reign of King Josiah, the nation’s borders were expanding and there was a renewed sense of national pride and superiority. The economy was booming! Taxes were low! And even the religious fervor of the people, long suppressed, was renewed under Josiah’s reform of the temple, signaling what should have been a renewed understanding and commitment to their covenantal role as God’s people.
The picture seemed rosy, and an altogether odd background for the prophetic word we’ve read today. The reluctant boy called to be a prophet to the nations is gone. Instead replaced with a fiery Jeremiah launching his public ministry with the damning condemnation we’ve heard today. For Jeremiah, the rosy picture is a sham, and no one gets off the hook for not seeing it. Not the ancestors, not the kings, not the prophets or the priests. They may have looked like God’s chosen people, sure. But their iwitness was self-centered, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing. A light to the nation that had turned its light inward, to build up and protect itself, rather than risk itself for the sake of the world they were called to save.
In other words, Judah was walking the walk and talking the talk, but when it came to fulfilling the call God gave them they were off-course, off-script, and off-putting. Even then, it’s not their failure to live up to the covenantal standards that’s sin. No! It’s that they have have rejected the living waters of God’s justice, mercy, and love which had set them free and sent them to serve. That they’d abandoned the divine dream of a people through which the world might be set free, and become a people whose self-focused ambition—even if well-intended—resulted in an empty witness which couldn’t hold, let alone pour out for others, the liberating love of God.
In other words, the holy fire which had first burned within them, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty the oppressed, to welcome the stranger and announce that they time had come when God would save all people, had burned out apart from a deep and abiding connection to God’s purpose and presence in their lives.
Our reading ends today without resolution, and if you’re feeling a little whiplash, it’s ok. But it also leaves us with a critical question: as we pursue the kin-dom goals of liberation, healing, restoration and renewal—as WE do justice—who’s dream are we dreaming? As we protest and pray and engage in sacred resistance, what vision of the world are we pursuing. Are we drawing from the spring of living water, the faithful love of God which from generation to generation has strengthened and nourished us, or are we building empty cisterns of self-congratulation and personal ambition?
Jeremiah makes the case, as many prophets throughout history, that rootedness in a shared sense of call and purpose allows us to fully enflesh God’s dream of liberation and abundant life for all. Not simply a desire to look good or feel good.
Make no mistake—these things matter. We didn’t make up the play book for social justice here at Foundry. We don’t talk about sacred resistance because Pastor Ginger wrote a book about it. We are doing it as people whose identity is deeply rooted in the story of God’s liberating love which seeks out the most vulnerable and marginalized, which rejects systems of power which disenfranchise, silence, and oppress, and which actively works to dismantle them in every single place we find them.
Apart from this identity, we have a disturbing tendency to pursue the dreams and desires of other gods. And these little gods—like wealth, power, status, and personal success—do not bring justice, at least not really. They deal in death and result in emptiness. Consider the work of well-intentioned White abolitionists who fought to end slavery only to adopt assimilationist attitudes that did and do colonize black and brown bodies with the notion that “they’d be better off if they looked like, acted like, or were educated like us.” That’s not justice. It’s racism parading as progress.
What about LGBTQ+ people of color, and our trans siblings, who along with the whole LGBTQ+ community labored for marriage equality. When white, middle-class, and mostly male people—like me—decided that liberation had come with the Supreme Court’s ruling and declared the struggle for queer liberation complete, their bodies were left continuing to bear the brunt of queer oppression. Friends, that is not justice. It is privileged ambivalence.
Consider folks—and we all know them—that say they’re seeking liberation or justice, so-called social justice warriors seeking equity and inclusion. Those who protest and pray and preach and show up and show out when harm is being done to their chosen constituency, but who refuse to build relationships or understanding with those they disagree with. Who leave behind people in their communities who may not yet be where they are. They may be convincing and compelling, but this is not liberation. It’s lip-service.
These things all have the appearance of justice: an end to slavery, equal rights for LGBTQ+ folk who want to get married, talking a good game about liberation. But when they’re done on behalf of these little gods they accomplish at best temporary returns. Leaving us, when the going gets tough and the work seems impossible, divorced from the living water which gives us life, burnt out, jaded, and unable to do the work to which Christ calls us.
So what about it, Foundry Church? From which well are we drawing as we seek sustenance for the justice journey? At who’s altar are we worshipping as we seek to build the anti-racist, anti-colonial beloved community to which we are called? Because if our answer is anything less than this thing we do at that table, creating an ever-widening community, grounded in the welcome of Christ, in which all people find place and space to know themselves as beloved children of God, we’ve got some self-examination to do.
Y’all look. I know we’re proud of the witness we offer to our denomination and world. But if we’re doing the work because the preacher told us to from the pulpit or because we’re looking for a pat on the back and praise for being “good progressive Christians,” if we’re showing up just because we want to make ourselves look the part of a “leader in our denomination” or cultivate the image of a social justice church, then chances are what we do in a moment won’t last beyond it.
But if we want sustain a movement toward justice, to be a light to the world and a witness to the power of God’s love, we must remain rooted in the things that matter—breaking bread and passing cup to remember our common identity at the table of Christ. Grounding ourselves in the common waters of baptism through which Christ calls us to proclaim “Good news!” to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind and liberation to the captive and restoration to the oppressed. Remembering that the justice we seek—God’s justice—values diversity over conformity and relationships over lines in the sand. Investing not because we want power or praise, or are convinced of our ability or necessity in the work, but because we want to faithful to the one who has called us. Then, friends, then I dare anyone to stop what God can do with us.
And hear this Good News! That even when we get it twisted. When we forget and fail and falter. That spring of living water does not dry up. God does not abandon us. Even as the people’s failure is condemned in Jeremiah’s prophecy, God STILL calls them “my People.” You—we—are God’s people, each of you perfectly gifted, absolutely called, unequivocally capable of doing and being and becoming the beloved community we’re called to be.
So then, beloved, as we do justice this week, this month, and throughout our lives do not forget who has called you. A God whose faithfulness breaks the power of Pharaoh’s grasp to liberate the captive and in the face of Disciplinary violence excites a revolution against injustice. Do not rush past, in your work toward justice, the simple acts of prayer at the beginning of a meeting or study of scripture or a chance to check in and remember that we don’t do this work alone. Fuel the holy fire for justice with the living water we are offered as the Body of Christ. And watch, just watch, what God can do.